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Saturday, December 15, 2007

Psychology of Rumors

More on the gun threat at my daughter' school.

Boring day and nothing happened at her school. About 2/3rds of the school did not show up on Friday. My guess is the school lost $70,000 in state funding due to the absences. About 10:30AM that morning there an E-Mail broadcast to parents about the threat.

What happened was some person who was turning 18 mentioned they could now legally buy a gun, which started the entire rumor. Thursday night at a wrestling match the local sheriff was questioning people about the rumor and the Student Government, whom was setting up for a rally the next day was told the rally had been canceled. My guess is since the people who are part of the student government are popular and talkative, the rumors spread quickly. From an ethnic viewpoint the majority of those who showed up to school were Asian. One class she had that was mixed, only Asian students showed up. Seniors were also more likely not to show up than Freshmen. I am not sure what this means.

At this age, rumors spread like crazy and are challenging to deal with. Even in a workplace rumors are a challenge to deal with. I remember one work place that I worked briefly, that even had signs not to believe rumors.

In an article, Rumor and Gossip Research by Ralph L. Rosnow and Eric K. Foster they write of the law of rumors, where the strength of the rumor is related to it's importance (R) and the ambiguity (how certain is it). There is also a social network component that needs to be added to this, when for example with my daughter she got multiple phone calls on the subject which reinforced the strength of the rumor. The fact the rally was canceled showed how serious the school was taking the rumor to the students. The school administration, my guess, saw this as a safety issue, on having so many students crowded in the gym and if a balloon popped the possible panic could result in injury. The fact there was sheriff's investigating the rumor also reinforced the possibility of it. Plus the famous incidents such as Virginia Tech and Columbine.

How I analyzed the decision should my daughter go to school was:
1. Likelihood of something happening at the school. Low based on my gut feel for the school compared to others ones I have been at.
2. Low since the rumor was so widespread I believed this would deter anyone even thinking of such an act.
3. The huge potential for this to be a rumor (high). The US has over 16 Million Students in High School and the number of on campus shootings, vs. schools in the US.

So the decision was my daughter went to school because I judged the risk to be low.

I would have appreciated if the school had been better communication from the school and they had increased the number of security at the campus. The school administration had a hard decision to make and I am sure were worried about increasing the level of concern in the community by broadcasting a message about this. Unfortunately they missed ability of the rumor to spread quickly through the student population letting the students shape the perception of what would the potential risk. In the corporate world when dealing with damage control it's better to let out the news yourself, than have others do it for you and be in a reactive mode. Johnson and Johnson with the Tylenol scandal is a classic on how to deal with emergencies that had the potential of destroying the companies reputation. Classic case on what to do in Public Relations.

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